Friday, June 12, 2009

Where we Fight our Battles Matters


This week at CEU there were several volleys exchanged in a debate over LGBT rights and homophobia. The debate took place through a series of mass emails - everyone kept hitting 'reply all'. I want to write about how frustrating it was to see this debate carried out via such an inefficient channel, but before I do, there is something that should be said:

The atmosphere in Hungary is odd right now. Tolerance of all kinds is on the wane.

A quick and dirty explanation: The ruling government has failed to govern, and some segments of the population have turned to extreme political parties as a result. "Hungary belongs to Hungarians" is the proud slogan of Jobbik, a party that recently won three seats in the EU Parliament. Jobbik is backed by the Magyar Garda, a militia that dresses its members in paramilitary fashion. Last month, the party's leading figure refused an interview with the Daily Telegraph because the paper reported that Jobbik can be linked to anti-Gypsy and anti-Semitic sentiments. Even if the party officials do not intend to enact xenophobic policies, the tone of their constituency is not very open minded. They are a small group, but they have the nation's attention.

The result: Debates most would deem offensive are taking place in the public sphere. The debate that took place over the CEU servers was not nearly as bad as what one might hear in a Budapest bar, but I got involved in the email battle because Hungary's growing lack of tolerance is making me angry.

Anyway, the whole affair reminded me of when I was younger.

Back when I first started writing, my motivations were horribly self-centered. I was absolutely certain that everybody would be interested in what I had to say. That was true of a lot of things in my life. It was an unattractive trait. It may have looked like confidence at the outset, but if I wasn't humbled on a regular basis, my head grew to unsustainable proportions.

I have to thank my friends here for being big enough pricks to knock me down a couple of pegs whenever necessary. I don't know how Dora does it without being a prick, but I love her for it. And of course living in a country where the language is as wily as Hungarian has kept me in check as well. Nevertheless, it's that "Hey, look at me!" characteristic that's guided me down many of the roads I've taken in life thus far.
Acting when I was younger
Working as a camp councilor
Much of my college-themed debauchery
Writing
And now as a teacher...
As a teacher I get up in front of people everyday and act like what I have to say is important .

My actions feel less self-centered now, and yet I'm more confident than ever that what I have to say is important. This may seem like a paradox, but I figured out why it isn't this week.

The confidence first took root when I got serious and started studying writing as a craft. When I was at UC Davis, I learned quickly that people were not interested in what I had to say - unless what I had to say was interesting. That sounds obvious, but I think it's a lesson a lot of twenty-somethings need to figure out.

I learned a lot while trying to put together that first novel. Then I got to Hungary and started teaching composition. My work was to help a diverse group of young people struggling to make their views comprehensible. The obstacles they encountered helped me break down the task of writing into much smaller tasks. It was exciting, but it was hard work.

I didn't know at the time that I was reinventing the wheel. When I got to CEU and started reading journals and textbooks my work became easier - and more interesting. And now, with experience and the concepts of a discipline at my disposal, I'm certain that what I have to say about composition and communication is valuable.

That certainty was tested this week after a Master's student sent out an email to everyone at CEU. She invited people to get involved in Budapest Pride 2009 - a film and cultural festival held by a LGBT rights group. That afternoon another student hit 'reply all' and scolded the university for allowing someone to distribute such an invitation. He called the invitation propaganda and then compared LGBT groups to the KGB.

The floodgates were open.

Over the next two days, there were more than 30 emails sent using the 'reply all' option. The few reasonable arguments forwarded were buried beneath ad hominems and outrageous statements. One person indirectly compared homosexuality to witchcraft.

I wrote up a standard reply for everyone who abused the 'reply all' option. Each time I replied only to the sender, asking him/her to recognize that no one was going to make any progress by batting insults back and forth. And to those asking for tolerance, I presented evidence that the use of the 'reply all' button was only driving the wedge in deeper.

I took the debate seriously because it is a very touchy issue in Hungary right now.

But I took the platform for the debate even more seriously because such an issue deserves a real debate. People told me that 'reply all' was forcing others to think about the issue. But from what I read, most of the people were not thinking very hard. People do not hit 'reply all' to generate awareness.

I know why people hit the 'reply all' button. That is the button you hit when you believe everyone is interested in what you have to say. That is the 'self-centered' button, the 'look-at-me!' button, the 'Watch-me-be-smarter-than-that-guy' button. It's an easy button to hit, but if people can stop themselves from hitting it and take a moment to find a more effective way to solve our collective problems, then both time and server space will be put to better use.

So, my challenge to you, readers, is to suggest a forum for such a debate in an environment as volatile as Hungary.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Good News from the Governmant

Yesterday the White House appointed Jim Leach to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The NEH is the nation's largest funding body for the humanities. The New York Times article that reported the appointment quotes Leach stating his support for the NEH.

Leach is described as a liberal Republican. He teaches at Princeton.

The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that Obama's choice of a Republican will likely help push through his proposal to increase NEH funding from $155 million to $171 million. If that proposal is approved, it would reverse the decades-long trend of real terms budget erosion for the NEH.

When I was an undergraduate in philosophy ('94-'99) and a Master's student in English ('02-'04), the outlook for people in the Humanities was bleak at best. People didn't talk about a lack of growth - they talked about how fast the discipline was shrinking. This appointment doesn't make all that go away, but it is pleasant to see those in power renew their appreciation for what people in the humanities have to offer.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Write Like a What Now?

We just finished a three-day weekend here. Dora and I got out of the city for most of it. That was very nice, but while in the country, our dog Dio got some kind of skin infection on his head. So today the vet had to shave his head and scrub the skin clean (read "raw").

So now when I walk the dogs I try to keep my mind occupied. If I don't, I end up fixated on the horrified looks of passers-by. You might find it hard to believe, but most people don't like looking at infected dog head skin.*

Anyway, as I walked my little Frankenstein monster along Andrassy ut, I tried to figure out what it is that keeps my students from writing clearly.

The subject brought me back to a mantra posted on the wall of my high school's expository writing classroom, "Read like a writer; write like a reader." I throw this idea up on the whiteboard during the opening and closing lectures in my first-year writing skills course. Many of the students latch onto it. They often quote it in the summary statements of their final portfolios. It's a nice phrase. It's got symmetry. It's got alliteration. And it makes you sound like you care about writing.

The problem with this advice is that it is easy to say, but it is exceptionally difficult to execute. This is the issue I tried to unravel a bit today. So while people gasped in horror at Dio's gory little head, I contemplated the challenge of 'writing like a reader.'**

The fact is, most of my students do not think about the reader while writing. They think about the rules of grammar, the due date, source citation, the word count, and (if I'm lucky) the content of their essays. These things ought to be the focus during the early stages of writing. They are important. Unfortunately, many students believe that once they can understand their own writing, then everyone else ought to understand that writing as well.

However, when a writer is focused on understanding the meaning of their own work, it's impossible to think about the reader - to consider how another person could/would/might understand a sentence or a paragraph. It's impossible because our brains can't build a strong enough wall between what we want to say and what the text says.

Whenever a writer tries to edit for clarity while still teasing out the meanings and concepts in a paper, there's a turf war in that writer's brain between the intended meaning and the text's possible meanings. Intended meaning is always going to win that war. So to write like a reader, a writer must have the firmest of grasps on the material before reaching the editing and proofreading stages. Once there, the writer then has to think about the material as though they have lost that grasp; they have to anticipate how their words could be misinterpreted.

The advice this challenge might spawn: "Stop thinking about what you want to do, and think about what you might be doing." Not quite as catchy as the adage from my high school, but it does get at the complexity of the task.

Such activity not only requires time and abstract thought - it also requires a powerful sense of insecurity. You have to be the type to worry and fret about all the ways your words might be misread. Most writers I've met have that kind of insecurity in spades. It make some areas of their lives more challenging, but it makes for some very readable prose.

Many beginning writers, on the other hand, believe that once the words are on the page, the task of deciphering an essay's meaning belongs to the reader. They seem to say, "If the paragraph isn't clear, why don't you read it again, stupid." While this kind of confidence might help a person in some situations, it often leads to poorly written papers.

So during my dog walk, while I was worrying about how strangers were reacting to my dog's head, the writing advice I generated was this: "Try being a bit more insecure about yourself and your work."

Mmm, maybe I'm a bit biased.

*Note to my students: "dog head skin" is an awkwardly long noun sequence. Just the kind of thing I've warned many of you against. Avoiding such a sequence is almost always a good point of style, but you will find writers who will break that 'rule' if the awkwardness of the phrasing compliments the meaning of the content. In this case, I used an ungainly and ugly collection of nouns to better get across how unpleasant my dog's head is when shaved.

**I'll leave the challenge of Reading Like a Writer to Francine Prose's lovely volume on the subject.